Andile Mngxitama of Mail & Guardian writes the following about your recently published book, Diepsloot: “Harber is totally unaware of his whiteness in a black space” and “Two unexplored possibilities present themselves: that blacks have internalised their black condition as natural and, more interestingly perhaps, that they were not going to tell a white writer just how angry they are about white privilege.”
After Mngxitama’s review had been published, Volksblad asked two journalists, one white and one black, also to review your book and both came to the conclusion that it was a solid piece of research, objectively and soberly written, which provided an honest view of Diepsloot and its people.
Although your response to this in an interview with Beeld was that you expected as much from Mngxitama and that Diepsloot serves as your perspective, do you think your race had an effect on the information you gathered from Diepsloot residents? That is, do you believe that your questions would have been answered differently if you had been black?
There is no escaping the fact that my perspective is shaped by my race, class and gender, as is the way in which interviewees would see and relate to me. I can only offer my observations and insights as honestly as possible. My hope is that readers get a sense of both the scope and limitations of this kind of journalism. I chose not to put myself at the centre of the story, because this book was about Diepsloot, not me, though clearly it is Diepsloot through the eyes and voice of this particular journalist. Hopefully, in time, there will be other perspectives that will fill out the picture and give different insights into, and understandings of, this place and similar ones and mine will be just one among many. We could then debate if any one viewpoint is more “legitimate”, or valuable, or insightful.
Sam Mathe (Volksblad reviewer) writes the following about Diepsloot (roughly translated): “As a young, post-apartheid community that came into existence with the birth of democracy, Diepsloot symbolises the challenges of a country in transition.” After four months of daily visits to Diepsloot, do you believe that the settlement serves as a barometer of the state of our nation and, if so, where do you believe South Africa is now in terms of a successfully executed democracy?
Barometer? Microcosm? I describe Diepsloot only as an indicator. It is only one place and I can’t say whether one would find the same dynamics and patterns in other urban settlements where I have not spent time. But one can get some pointers from it. Most of all I hope that we will pay more attention to these volatile, troubled settlements on the edge of our city and not leave people to use violence and protest to force politicians and leaders and media take notice.
How does one measure successful democracy? If it is in the number of people who vote and put faith in the system to respond to their aspirations, then Diepsloot would encourage one to give a thumbs-up. If one judges by the quality of people’s lives in places like Diepsloot, one would have to give a firm thumbs-down. If it is within our ability to build a stable and peaceful society which deals timeously with these issues, one would have to give a nervous shrug and say that we might just be able to do it, but it is going to be damn difficult and we will need a lot more clarity on how we are going to do it. Diepsloot demonstrates how formidable the challenge is and how we are falling short in meeting it.
During your talk at the launch of Diepsloot you said, “I am a great believer that to be good, journalism has to be disruptive – it has to challenge you, shake you up, make you think again, question your assumptions. It has to disrupt your emotions and it has to disrupt your train of thought.” In the light of the possible restrictions that the government aims to put on media freedom, will this kind of journalism still be possible? Does the need for this kind of journalism increase together with a government’s secrecy?
The best journalism sometimes comes from the most difficult circumstances, certainly in South African history. We will have to fight to protect our space to operate, and our right to be healthily disruptive, but we now have powerful weapons in the Constitution and the courts to conduct these battles. Our biggest fight, though, will not be against those who wield a big stick, but against those who want to lull us into being quiescent and complacent, who want us to whisper, or chat politely, when we need to make a noise, to be rowdy and disruptive.
Disruptive, challenging, discomfiting journalism is needed at all times, not just when there is repression. During the dark days this kind of journalism served as a protest, but now it can serve to ensure that our democracy runs more effectively. It may be more important than ever.
Although the reputation of Diepsloot as a violent, dangerous and almost unforgiving place is partly due to distorted and sensationalised media coverage, the crime rate in Diepsloot is undoubtedly high. Does the (always present) grey area of protecting oneself and those you love grow bigger when you live in an area deprived of many basic law enforcement services? Could this be the cause of the many violent deaths reported?
Any of us who felt we could not rely on the security and justice systems would take the steps necessary to protect ourselves and our families. That is why there is vigilante justice in places like Diepsloot. Of course, there is a “mob” element to the way it is carried out, but I try and show that it is also a rational response to the absence of normal state structures.
There is little value in being righteous about this from the relative security of the suburbs. There is no moral high ground here unless we tackle the reasons people resort to vigilantism, unless society responds to the demand for an effective policing and justice system, unless we give people the tools to deal properly with crime. Why is it that there can be a year long delay in building a police station in the area, which is just the first step towards fixing this? Where is the leadership and the commitment to cut through this bureaucratic mess and get it done?
During your talk at the book launch you also said, “My book is in essence an appeal to people to know more about this place and cut through the assumptions and stereotypes. In fact, if you want to understand this country and where it is headed, you need to understand places such as this, and the hopes and aspirations of its peoples. My book is a cry to people to listen to the people of Diepsloot and I am certain you will be surprised by what you hear.” What were you surprised to hear?
I hope that every page of my book conveys what surprised me every step of the way. Surprise is what breaks down assumptions, stereotypes and naiveté. Surprise is the midwife of learning. I was surprised by how differentiated the settlement was, how organised it was, how much trading goes on, how people survive, how divided the politics was, how much the state and city had done there, how little impact this had, how difficult the “service delivery” challenge was, how misguided housing policy had been, how much I hated the phrase “service delivery”, how volatile it was, how calm people were, how many people have a love-hate relationship with the place, how rich the street and communal life was, how crowded the schools were, how some still got excellent results, how much NGO and charity work there is, how many people care passionately about the people and the place, how little apparent resentment there was for the wealthier suburbs around them, how impossible the city councillors’ jobs were, how chilling the hip-hop lyrics of local artists were, how little we knew about this place and people, how badly the media treats them, how much I grew to enjoy being in the place … Enough?